Fighting on the Flanks, August 1864
The Siege of Petersburg
August, 2014 | CMH
The Siege of Petersburg - Battle of Ream's Station - The Attempt of the Enemy to Regain the Weldon railroad on the evening of August 25th, 1864" showing the "repulse of the final confederate assault" according to the accompanying text.
From Frank Leslie's Scenes and Portraits of the Civil War (1894)
In mid-August, Grant opened a new offensive at Petersburg. The previous month, Lee had detached Early's Second Corps and Breckinridge's division from his army and had sent them to defend the Shenandoah Valley and threaten Washington, D.C.
These operations had compelled Grant to hurry General Wright and two divisions of his VI Corps to defend the U.S. capital. Lee also sent additional reinforcements under General Anderson to Early on 6 August, including Maj. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw's First Corps division, an artillery battalion, and Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry division. With Lee's forces thereby reduced, Grant decided to increase pressure on Richmond while Meade's troops moved around the Union left, in another attempt to cut the Weldon Railroad south of Petersburg. "My main object," Grant explained, "is to call troops from Early and from the defenses of Petersburg."
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On the night of 13-14 August, Hancock's II Corps returned to Deep Bottom, supported by General Birney's X Corps and Brig. Gen. David M. Gregg's cavalry division, to threaten Richmond with twenty-eight thousand men. Grant believed that Lee had sent three divisions from Richmond to reinforce Early in the Shenandoah Valley, but in fact only Kershaw's division had left the capital's defenses; consequently, the rebel forces southeast of Richmond were far stronger than he and Hancock assumed. On 16 August, the initial Union attacks on the Confederate left along the Darbytown Road near Fussell's Mill shoved back the defenders, opening a gap in the Southern line. But rebel troops of Maj. Gen. Charles W. Field's First Corps division counterattacked and regained their fieldworks several hours later. On the extreme Union right, Confederate horsemen under Rooney Lee prevented Gregg's Federal cavalry from dashing into Richmond. Facing twenty thousand Confederates, Hancock withdrew his forces to the Petersburg lines south of the James River on 20 August, having lost almost three thousand men. Many II Corps officers conceded that their weary troops were "without any spirit" due to the cumulative effects of hard campaigning since May and the extreme summer heat. In the end, neither side had gained an advantage from the Second Battle of Deep Bottom. While Hancock's advance on Richmond was thwarted by Confederate forces, Lee likewise was prevented from sending more reinforcements to the Valley, and he had to weaken the defenses of Petersburg to protect the Confederate capital.
Source: National Archives
While Hancock advanced on Richmond, Federal troops near Petersburg began another move on the Weldon Railroad. On 18 August, General Warren marched west with his V Corps to Globe Tavern, a prominent two-story brick building two miles south of Petersburg and just east of the Weldon Railroad, which was now in Union hands. Although General Hill's rebel troops launched several powerful attacks through 21 August against Warren's entrenched position north of Globe Tavern—including one on the nineteenth, in which almost three thousand panicked Federals of Brig. Gen. Samuel W. Crawford's division were captured—Hill could not drive off Warren's men, who were bolstered by IX Corps reinforcements. To consolidate his hold on the railroad, Warren extended his lines eastward to the existing Union trenches. The loss of the Weldon Railroad at Globe Tavern forced the Confederates to haul supplies by wagon on a circuitous, twenty-four-mile route from Stony Creek Station northward to Petersburg via Dinwiddie Court House.
Grant hoped to capitalize on the V Corps' success by destroying more of the Weldon Railroad. On 24 August, six thousand men of Hancock's II Corps, back from Deep Bottom with no rest, marched several miles south of Globe Tavern to Ream's Station. Shielded by Gregg's two thousand cavalrymen, Hancock's column began tearing up track. Learning of the Federals' railroad-wrecking operation near Reams Station, Lee ordered Hill to attack the unsuspecting bluecoats and prevent further disruption of the rail line. Hill maneuvered around the Union V Corps' position at Globe Tavern, and on the afternoon of 25 August, launched several vigorous attacks against Hancock's position at Ream's Station, which the Federals managed to repulse.
Despite taking heavy casualties, the Confederates were persistent. At about 1730, the divisions of Maj. Gen. Henry Heth and Wilcox (under Heth's overall command due to General Hill's illness) charged from the west and overran the weak Union defenses along the railroad. The rebels "came at the double-quick, with flashing bayonets, and ringing out their familiar yell," wrote one Federal soldier. Meanwhile, Southern cavalry under General Hampton attacked the II Corps from the south. Hit from two sides and blasted by artillery, many of Hancock's troops fled the field. The Confederates captured about twenty-one hundred demoralized Federals and nine guns. With the timely support of IX Corps reinforcements, Hancock withdrew the beaten remnants of his command to Union lines near the Jerusalem Plank Road, and much to the bluecoats' relief, the victorious Confederates did not pursue them.
After Hancock's defeat at Ream's Station, Grant worked to improve the Union Army's defenses around Petersburg. He had a strong secondary line of earthworks constructed behind the front lines, complete with an extensive network of trenches, artillery emplacements, and forts. The first and second lines stretched for a total of ten miles around Petersburg. Grant also strengthened his headquarters and the massive Union supply depot at City Point. The Northern logistical complex also boasted several hospitals that accommodated up to ten thousand patients, along with over a mile of wharfs, numerous warehouses, and a vast rail yard. As of September, a military railroad ran from the City Point docks to Warren's V Corps posted around Globe Tavern, a fourteen-mile route that carried eighteen trains per day. On a typical day during the siege, the Union Army's logistical apparatus at City Point provided the troops with one hundred thousand bread rations per day and the animals with twelve thousand tons of hay while storing an ample supply of food. A mid-September Confederate cavalry raid led by General Hampton, which netted about twenty-five hundred head of cattle from behind Union lines six miles east of City Point, and a well-founded fear of rebel sabotage, led Union authorities to further strengthen the sprawling depot.
While Union forces improved their defenses, Lee commanded his troops to expand Confederate earthworks to the southwest to protect the Southside Railroad and the Boydton Plank Road, crucial branches of his supply network. Rebels north of the James River also improved their positions—often with slave labor—to defend Richmond, although Lee lacked the soldiers to adequately guard all sections of the Confederate lines. "Without some increase in strength," Lee had written in late August, "I cannot see how we can escape the natural military consequences of the enemy's numerical superiority." Reinforcements for Lee's army would be especially crucial since Lincoln had called for another five hundred thousand volunteers on 18 July 1864.
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